Lessons from Nepal #5 - It Comes from Within

Imagine a boat, any type of boat will do.  The boat is taking on water, and in danger of sinking.  What is putting the boat in danger?  I'll explain some ideas, and answer the riddle at the end of this blog post.

I found the people of Nepal to be happy, gentle and strong.  They have the abiility to face adversity with a smile, a shake of the head, and the phrase "what can we do".  I witnessed drivers waiting in gas lines for 4 days.  I witnessed shop owners cleaning their shops and patiently waiting for tourists to return (as hotels were nearly empty).  The Yoga Sutras call for us to have these same qualities. 

स्थिरसुखमासनम् ॥४६॥  (Sthira Skuham Asanam)

sthira = (nom. sg. m.) strong; steady; stable; motionless
sukham = (acc. from sukha) comfortable; ease filled; happy; light; relaxed
āsanam = (acc. sg. n./nom. sg. n. from āsana) asana; posture; seated position; physical practice

This text is often something to strive for in our physical practice, which is a great goal.  Finding the balance between stable strength and comfortable ease is a challenge.  It is a great way to make sure you aren't pushing too hard, but is there more?  What if you could face your entire life this way?  What if you could find a way to face the challenges that come from the outside with a new perspective?  If you can remain strong yet happy and relaxed, despite all adversity, how would this change your life?  These are the exact qualities that I admire about the people of Nepal.  They have this Sthira Sukham stuff down like nobody else!

So, back to the boat.   In my eyes, it is the water inside the boat that is the problem.  How can you change from the inside, so that you remain strong, steady, and happy without letting the water get in and sink your boat?  It is something that I strive for, and something that my yoga and meditation practice bring me closer to achieving.  Look within yourself for the answers.  

Namaste - Beth

  

Lessons From Nepal #2 - Daily Practice

My Yoga Practice in Pokhara, Nepal.

My Yoga Practice in Pokhara, Nepal.

Here at home, I frequently hear the yoga community speaking about a goal of daily yoga practice.  There are yoga challenges set up to encourage us to practice yoga poses every day.  We may speak about getting our "yoga practice in", meaning exercise, and something to do and help us with the rest of our day.  Yes, physical exercise and yoga postures are important, but isn't there more?

I observed several friends in Nepal practicing yoga, even though they have never been in a single yoga pose, let me explain. While attending a Yoga Nidra class with Beryl Bender Birch, she told us she is frequently asked if she practices yoga every day.  Her answer was perfect, "yes, I practice yoga every day, but I do not practice asana every day".  Asana (the poses) are just one of the 8 limbs of Patanjali's Yoga.  The other 7 limbs are all vital to a yoga practice!

  1. Yamas (restraints)

    1. Ahimsa: nonviolence

    2. Satya: truthrulness

    3. Asteya: nonstealing

    4. Brahmacharya: countinence

    5. Aparigraha: noncovetousness

  2. Niyamas (observances)

    1. Saucha: cleanliness

    2. Samtosa: contentment

    3. Tapas: heat, zeal, discipline

    4. Svadhyaya: Study of spiritual scriptures and self

    5. Isvara Pranidhana: surrender to God

  3. Asana (yoga postures)  Through the practice of the physical postures of yoga, we develop discipline, focus, strength, ease, clarity, and balance our energy.  This is a good prep for daily life, or for a meditation practice.  It is not the only part of yoga.                             

  4. Pranayama (breath control)  Literally translated as "life force extention", breath control is intimately connected to our nervous system.  Breath work provides a link between the breath, the mind, and the emotions.  I consider it to be vital, and begin each personal practice with a little bit of breath work.  I hear feedback from students that this is a helpful practice that they bring into their daily lives.               
  5.  Pratyahara (withdrawl from the senses)  Moving our attention away from physical sensation allows us to focus inward.  According to Yoga International, "pratyahara exercises require concentration and the ability to focus on the inner sensory and energetic experiences of the body".  So you are not asleep, and you are not lost in your phone or your to do list.  Your mind has an inward focus.

  6. Dharana (concentration)  During asana, our focus changes, during dharana, our attention falls on a single mental object.  This may be an image, a sound, or a specific energetic location in the body.  This practice can be considered the gateway to meditation.

  7. Dhyana (meditation)  Durning meditation, there is an unwavering flow of concentration.  Medical science now supports the fact that meditation is a very beneficial practice on it's own.  Although my friend in Nepal meditates for 2.5 hours every day, you can start with as little as one or two 5 minute sessions and find a practice that works for you.

  8. Samadhi (bliss)  When we experience samadhi, the mind is free from all distractions, and we experience inner consciousness & light.  You may wish to think of this as heaven, enlightenment, or just peace.

Boudhanath Sthupa - Kathmandu, Nepal

Boudhanath Sthupa - Kathmandu, Nepal

I may not have practiced asana every single day while I was in Nepal, but I did practice and observe yoga every day.  I observed practices and ways of life that will forever change the way I think.  I observed people facing extreme hardship with a smile and a shake of the head ("no problem" - just like in Jamaica).  If it was something they couldn't fix, they just faced it & moved on.  I observed women happily washing their clothes on a rock in a stream.  I was welcomed whole heartedly into people's homes, and allowed to interact with their children.  I observed the daily prayers of monks.  I walked with hundreds of dedicated people doing their daily meditative walks around the Boudhanath Sthupa, spinning prayer wheels and chanting Om Mani Padme Hum.  We witnessed people buying brass objects for honoring parents who had died and those people preparing for the festival.  The people of Nepal have impacted my practice off the mat in so many ways!

Don't get me wrong, I love asana practice.  My teaching style is rooted in physical alignment, strength, stability and self observance, but there is so much more to yoga.  If you don't manage to fit in any asana today, think like a Nepali, "no problem".  You can always practice a little meditation, or any combination of the 8 limbs.  They're all yoga (even Beryl Bender Birch thinks so).  

Namaste friends,

Beth

Yoga for Hips - series post #2

The hips are complex joints that have the ability to make several different movements, and also have a great impact on the way our lower backs feel.  For this reason, the next pose in our Hip series is Crescent Lunge.  This superb pose strengthens, lengthens, and gives us a solid base to support our spine.

  1. Stand with your feet hip width apart and the space between the 2nd and 3rd toes facing forward.  Practice standing here with strong legs by slightly squeezing in about 2" above your ankles and squeezing out 2" above your knees.  This should distribute your weight more evenly over your feet.  Remember what it feels like to have that action in your legs.
  2.  Step back with one foot, both knees remain bent and the back heel is lifted.  You're not on a balance beam, make sure your feet are wide for stability.
  3. Notice your feet, press down evenly through the inner and outer feet.  Next, engage your legs again.  This means that the area 2 " above your ankles hug in slightly and the area just above your knees hugs out slightly.  Notice your front knee.  It should track over the ankle but not beyond.  Your front knee may want to hug in, don't let it, keep the area just above both knees pressing out.
  4.   Now that the legs are in place, extend the tailbone toward the back heel, and scoop the front sitting bone toward the front knee.  Both legs are staying engaged as described in step 3.
  5. Begin to straighten your back leg if you are able to do so while maintaining steps 3 & 4.  Otherwise, back knee can remain a little bent.
  6. Bring your arms over your head, and attempt to bring your shoulders over your hips.  Your pinkie fingers will face front.  
  7. Make your spine a little longer.  First, lift your front and back ribs away from your pelvis equally.  Lift your midspine by allowing your shoulder blades to lift toward your hands.  Lift the very top of your head toward the ceiling.

Hold this pose before repeating all of the steps on the other side.  You may want to start with 30 seconds, and work up to 2 minutes or beyond.  Try to keep all of the muscle action while taking long full breaths.  

Keep practicing Pose #1.  We'll keep building a hip practice as the weeks continue.

Namaste - Beth

4 Ways to find the Magic in Your Yoga Practice

John came to my yoga wall class completely unaware that he was about to give me the biggest compliment ever. After class, I asked, "how do you feel?"  He answered " it was challenging and relaxing at the same time."  Best compliment to a yoga teacher ever!  

The yoga that I have come to adore is far from the big, showy, hyper flexible photos. It is far from the sweaty workout based flows (although my teacher makes us work harder).   The yoga that I love centers the mind. It is challenging and calming at the same time. It balances the sthyra sukham (Strength & Ease) of the Yoga Sutra (my favorite Yoga Sutra Ever). It holds both calm and challenge at the same time.  This is part of the magic of a yoga practice.  Here are a few ways that you can find the it in your practice.

  1. Hold the poses for a long time.   It did take quite a long time for me to enjoy practicing this way.  Maybe the poses aren't quite as big, or you may take a modification halfway through, but this will give you a chance to express the pose more fully.
  2. Concentrate on one key movement.  Maybe you fully root into your hands and feet, taking the time to notice what actions in your legs and arms make a change in your connection to the earth.  Maybe you concentrate on hinging at the hips, or keeping your abdominal locks engaged.  This can take us out of our heads, and gives you a point of concentration during long holds.
  3. Use breathwork.  Maybe you concentrate on Ujjayi breathing (sounds like Darth Vader) or taking long even breaths to a count of 6-8 in and out.  You may play around with extending the pause at the end of the inhale and exhale.  The sounds of the world can fade around you as your full focus moves toward your breath.
  4. Find your Drishti.  Drishti, or focused gaze is the key to make balance more achievable and is soothing for the mind.  It takes comparison out of the picture (you can't truly keep a focused gaze on one thing while comparing yourself to whoever is on the mat next to you).  If you find your mind wandering, remember to find your drishti (find a focal point) .

It takes time and effort to practice in this way.  Do not judge yourself if you find your mind wandering, because it happens to everyone.  Try to return your attention to the practice.  Using one or more of these ideas can help make that concentration a little more achievable.  How do you find your focus when your mind wants to wander in class?  Where do you find the subtle magic in your yoga practice?

Namaste - Beth

Challenge day 4

Day 4 is L handstand against the wall. Sometimes this can feel even harder than kicking up to a wall. 

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Start out on your hands and knees with your feet against a wall. Push up to a shortened downdog, heels on the wall. Stay here or walk your feet up the wall and straighten your legs. Your hips will stack over your shoulders and wrists. Keep your core strong. It is normal to feel like your hips are beyond your hands when they aren't. 

Put a Strap on your Yoga Practice

Some students view the use of yoga props as a sign of weakness. Although often unappreciated, props such as straps and blocks can offer big rewards when used creatively in yoga practice. Here are a few ways to sneak props into your home practice. 


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1. Blocks in Wheel Pose -  Using blocks against a wall in wheel pose can help to open your chest and decrease the amount of pressure on the wrists.  Place the block on an angle, propped between the baseboard your yoga mat.  Keep your legs engaged, and try to make this feel like an even backbend (it is very tempting to make the movement all about the lower back). 


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2. Straps in Reclining Hand to Big Toe Pose -  To practice rooting the thighs, place a strap around your upper thigh of the lifted leg and around the ball of your foot of the extended leg.  Instead of taking the foot as close as you can to your head, root your sitting bones down, keeping the natural arch in your lower back.  Next, press through the extended foot to root the thign of the lifted leg.  Only take the stretch as deep as you can without loosing the rooting of the thighs.


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3. Straps in Downward Facing Dog - Make a loop about shoulder width, place it behind your back, and tighten it around both shoulders.  The idea is to keep your shoulders and upper back from rounding.  At the same time, pull your lower front ribs in, and feel your back press gently into the lower strap on your back.  Keep the hips lifted high, and the legs engaged.  Allow your strong foundation to bring new length to your spine.


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Strap in Handstand - Place the strap as you did in downward facing dog.  Prepare to kick up to a handstand about 6-8 inches away from the wall.  You may not need it, but it is great to know that it's there.  Engage your core, look between your hands, and kick up, attempting to place your hips just above your shoulders.  Feel the stability & have fun!   


Props are great.  They can support and open your practice in a whole new way.  Hopefully you feel inspired to find a new love for props.  Try these ideas in your own practice, and tag @yoga.m8  on instagram if you use these or any other cool props.  I'd love to hear from you.

 

Namaste - Beth

 

How I Learned Non Attachment in Handstand

Our practice often speaks so much about our mental state, we just need to take the time to listen.  Several months ago, I was pretty excited about handstands.  I was practicing them regularly, and felt fairly strong.  I attempted to move slowly away from the wall, felt myself shifting off balance and knew I should come down.  Instead, I was attached to the result of nailing that handstand for a few more moments and tried to correct myself.  Down I came with a loud crash, hyperextending my wrist, and leaving one nasty mat burn (like a rug burn, only worse) on my shoulder.  My body hurt, and my pride was crushed.  

In the months that followed, I became well aquainted with the basics.  I learned that instead of becoming totally wrapped up in attaining full wheel pose (impossible with my wrist injury), I could explore the subtle actions that are available in bridge, and I loved it.  I learned that a chair assisted wheel feels amazing, and opens up my heart center in a whole new way.  Due to my injury, listening to my body and becoming less attached to achieving some final result became a necessity.

Time has gone by, and I just finished a handstand workshop at a local expo.  Fears came up as I was asked to trust my assistant (not the wall) and turn my world upsidedown.  Things went better when I stopped thinking about the final result, and really invested myself in the present moment.  I noticed subtle things like my gaze and the action of the muscles in my inner ankles and wrists.  It played a big part in my comfort in the pose.  Most of all, I was able to  lose the attachment to the result and enjoy the moment.  A yoga practice is really about what you learn about yourself and how you feel.  While I may not be bearing weight on my hands unassisted, I learned to become more comfortable in a difficult situation.  This is worth way more than any handstand ever!

Do your practice and all is coming.
— Sri K. Pattabhi Jois

  Namaste - Beth

Dealing with the Unexpected

Yoga teaches us to cure what need not be endured and endure what cannot be cured
— B.K.S. Iyengar

The unexpected isn't always avoidable, but a regular yoga practice will help you deal with it.  You'll become less reactionary, connect with yourself, and live in the present moment.  This can result in an improved experience for yourself, and those around you. 

While traveling earlier this month, our first flight was delayed and we missed our connecting flight.  The seasoned airline employee was less than sympathetic to put it mildly.  The 6 travelers who missed the flight were assigned alternate travel arrangements.  Arriving at the gate just 2 minutes earlier would have saved us 2.5 hours, and we were all feeling unhappy about our situation.  A few simple questions can demonstrate how to handle the situation yogically.

Question #1 - Can this be cured?

Answer #1 - Nope, the attendant at the gate did not have the authority to open the door and let us take the flight.

Question #2 - How can this be endured?

Answer #2 - A meal did wonders for our moods.  We found our new gate, then my husband and son played a game while I set out to explore the airport.

I was delighted to discover an airport yoga studio.  It was a simple space, decorated with plants and silhouettes of yoga poses.  It was located just off a quiet hallway between terminals.  There were yoga videos to stream, mats to borrow, a privacy screen, and a logbook to sign.  Airport yoga studios have been reported at San Francisco International Airport, Burlington International Airport, Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, Albuquerque International Sunport,  Raleigh-Durham International Airport, and Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.  I highly recommend using these spaces while you are traveling.  It can make a flight much more enjoyable, and healthier too!  If you have experienced others, please comment in the section following this post.

Upon completion of our final flight, we were once again delayed, and folks around me were frantically attempting to position themselves to quickly exit the airplane.  My family and I were waiting for them to pass, and you could feel the nervous tension building in the air.  Imagine my surprise when a woman across the aisle suggested that we chant Om as a remedy to the situation.  Instead of participating in the anxiety, I was able to have a very nice conversation with this California Yogi while we allowed others to go first.  The things that I would have missed by getting caught up in the nervous tension.  Talk about finding a way to endure!  

In yoga, we practice maintaining our breath and focus in difficult situations and poses.  We practice turning inward instead of comparing ourselves to others.   This helps teach us to deal with our daily lives, and acts as a shock absorber for the little bumps that come along the way. It leads to a lower stress, more enjoyable life experience.  

Next time you're dealing with the unexpected, ask can this be cured, and how can this be endured?

Namaste - Beth

 

Namaste - Does Everyone Really Have a Light?

"Does everyone really have a light?  What about my ex and murderers?  Do they really have a light?"

Ahh, the frequently quoted phrase at the end of yoga classes.  Yoga teachers frequently end class something like, "namaste, the light in me honors the light in you".  This is appreciated by most students, but has left one of my students questioning the light in some folks that they've met.  I'll attempt to respond.

I like this definition of namaste  

I honor the place in you where the entire Universe resides, I honor the place of love, of light, of truth, of peace. I honor the place within you where, if you are in that place in you, and I am in that place in me, there is only one of us
— Ram Das

So yes, my answer is that light, or place is in everyone, but not everyone resides in that place.  It may be very well hidden.  Yoga, spiritual practices, and meditation are just a few ways to connect with that place.  Not everyone resides in that place, although many of us are attempting to spend most of our time in that space.  

Until the next time - Namaste

Beth

More than a Yoga Body

Body image in yoga appears to be the new trendy topic.  Yoga Dork is selling "this is my Yoga Body" t-shirts, and Yoga Journal has teamed up with Kathryn Budig for this month's Body Issue  and social media campaign #loveyourbody.  Frankly, yoga is about so much more than the body, and it's getting a little old!

I don't mean to discredit the idea of learning to love yourself and coming to the mat the way that you are.  I have worked with those who came to yoga  because of stress, weight issues, injuries, recovery from cancer treatment, and a few who came to one class just to support me or their spouse (and ended up staying  because they loved it).  I encourage each student to look inward and meet themselves in their own space. I believe that the recent social media body image blast is attempting to send this very message, however I fear that it may be clouded in the delivery.

So, if yoga is not about how your body looks, then what is it all about?

1.   Yoga is about the body...  WHAT?  I'm the first to admit that I love a good alignment focused class.  I spend large amounts of time analyzing my own habitual movement and that of my students, family, and friends.  An hour with an Iyengar teacher or one of my favorite alignment based teachers will have me questioning everything, including the way that I stand, walk, hold my toes, etc.  These lessons are valuable and can prevent or treat injuries.

2.  Yoga is about the internal body.  Breathwork, postures, meditation and chanting can help balance the nervous system, relax tense muscles, strengthen weak muscles,  reduce blood pressure, decrease stress, and improve breathing.  I'm sure that we can all think of at least one of those areas that could use improvement. 

3.  Yoga is about the mind body connection.  I've had students show up in class announcing, "my husband said that I need to come to yoga".  I simply adore the times when students leave my classes with that blissed out yoga buzz.  You can see it in their faces and feel the energy in the room.  That is the heart of my mission, and it keeps yoga from being just another activity.

4.  Yoga is not just the time you spend on the mat.  I'm particularly fond of yoga philosophy found in the books that I've listed here, the Yoga Sutras, and many more.  

5.  Yoga helps create space in the body and mind.  Practicing yoga, paying attention, and observing without judgement can and should be taken off the mat.  Yoga has taught me to view things from a fresh perspective before reacting.  This has helped in my personal and professional life. 

In conclusion, come to yoga for the body, come to yoga for the other benefits, or come just to support your spouse or partner (it is so sweet to see loved ones practicing together).  Practice yoga, and do it often.  Seek out an experienced teacher, and learn to love the practice and practitioners as much as I have!

 

Namaste - Beth